Australian Food History: England – the mother country – food in the middle ages


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This is an updated version of a post originally published 18 February 2019.

In tracing the food of my great-great-great-grandparents I returned to the land of my ancestors – England – and life in the middle ages. Knowledge of food customs and eating habits before that era is limited, incomplete or ambiguous due to reliance on accounts written after-the-fact with uncertain translations. The year 1066, a significant year when many small kingdoms joined into one larger Kingdom (England), seemed a logical time-period to start my food-tracking.1,2

The Economy 

In the middle ages England had a largely agricultural economy with an estimated 90% of the population living in rural areas. There were marked social inequalities ranging from wealthy aristocrats and the clergy, through to peasants living in poverty. Society operated under a feudal system, with land held by the ruling elite and communities structured around manors. Peasants in surrounding villages worked the land for the Lord of the manor or church and were allotted strips of land to cultivate for themselves. Markets were held in towns and villages for exchange of foods and goods.3-7

The Food System

Foods eaten varied over different time periods and from the wealthy to the poor. The food system in the middle ages was based on grains and vegetables. Barley, rye, oats and millet were eaten by the poor. Wheat, requiring expensive manure, was grown only by wealthy farmers, gradually spreading to lower classes and becoming a staple food. Bread became a staple for all classes, cooked in public ovens or over embers. It was course, heavy and unleavened. Peas and beans were included if grain was in short supply. Vegetables were dependent on those grown or bartered, with underground types considered unfit for noble classes and only eaten by the poor. Vegetables were cooked as raw forms were considered the cause of disease. Fruit was cooked, served in pies, or candied.8-13

All classes consumed ‘pottage’ a thick soup or porridge made with pease, oats, bran, grains, vegetables; and meat if available. More luxious forms were called ‘mortrew’ and those with cereals ‘frumenty’. Pottage was eaten with bread and cooked in a large pot over an open fire. Bread was used as plates (trenchers) for serving of food, soaking up juices and then consumed.10-12,14

Upper classes including noblemen dined on freshly killed meat, game meat, fish and fowl. Feasts and banquets were held by the aristocracy and clergy. Gluttony was common. The main meat for peasants was pigs. They were cheap, ran free in forests and were available year-round. Other animals required slaughtering in autumn to save on winter-feeding. Fish was available for those who lived near the sea, rivers or lakes. Mutton and poultry were also eaten. While dairy foods, especially cheese, were consumed all over Europe, milk drinking was confined to cooler regions due to spoilage in warm temperatures. In England, the poor kept cows and milk was drunk in farming areas, although often reserved for the young, and there is evidence of the use of buttermilk, cheese, curds and whey. Meat and fish were preserved by pickling in brine or vinegar, gelatinised, dry-salting or smoking; cereal grains, meat and fruit were preserved by drying; and butter by salting.9-12,15-18

With water often unclean, and milk difficult to keep fresh, the commonest beverage was ale made from barley, mead or cider. The wealthy also drank wine.10,11,16

The late middle ages

In the 12th-13th century England had sporadic involvement in the Crusades, a doubling of its population and a growth in towns. Biscuits, of bread baked twice, were developed by the crusaders, and found useful on long voyagers as it kept well. The crusaders brought back spices, raisins, dates, figs and sugar from the middle east. The first large shipment of sugar to England was recorded in 1319. Spices and sugar were expensive and only consumed by the wealthy. The use of almonds and almond milk in recipe books dates to these times.9,11,19,20,

In 1314-1317 the Great Famine struck after two cold wet summers with crop shortages, harvest failures, starved livestock and climbing food prices. In the winter of 1315/16 to stave off starvation peasants were forced to eat seeds intended for planting with disastrous consequences the following year. There was a large death rate and the population declined. The Black Death swept through beginning in 1348 reducing the population by 23-45%. Life expectancy had dropped from 35.28 in 1276 to 17.33 years in 1375. There was subsequently a labour shortage and a shrinking agricultural sector as less food was required for a shrinking population. The economy was thrown into chaos, although ironically with temporarily more food available for lower classes. Now in high demand, workers began pushing for higher wages. Resistance by ruling classes culminated in the Peasant’s Revolt (also called the Great Rising) of 1381. Subsequently, the system of peasants in tenure-by-service to Lords was gradually replaced by paid services and tenure by paid rent, and a new class of gentry.11,21-23

In the 15th century, growth of the cloth industry, ship-building and metalworking, and emergence of a ‘middle’ class of merchants, bankers and lawyers based primarily in London and the south, brought the rural economy dominance to an end. Many rural villages became deserted as the population sought opportunities in towns and cities. The death of Henry VII in 1509 marked the start of the early modern period.1,20, 24

Food … moving from the land to the market

In the middle ages there would have been a deep connection with food and the land from whence it came. The daily existence of life on the manor revolved around its production. Food included fresh, cooked and preserved (salted, smoked, dried, pickled, candied) foods; bread and cheese. Later, ‘convenience’ foods of biscuits and Ploughman’s lunch were available. For the wealthy, there were sugar and spices.6,8-19,25

Markets were a free-market system when people bartered and exchanged foods and goods. However, the evidence is that there was no such thing as a true “free” market as the weekly markets were the property of the local Lord and each one had precise rules on quality, prices and terms of payment. By the end of the middle ages, there were already brokers acting as an intermediary between trades, and peasants never had the capacity to make a profit. It therefore wasn’t an equal playing field.7,26 Nevertheless the markets were local in the sense they operated on the scale of an individual household, manor, village or town. Over the next centuries this would move on to a broader world-wide market-place – as England (later Great Britain) sought to expand its empire.

To Be Continued …

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This is the second post in my theme: Food History in Australia.

# 1: Australian Food History: “eat what your great-great-great-grandparents ate …”
# 2: Australian Food History: The middle ages in England – the mother country. 
# 3: Australian Food History: Food and the rise of the British Empire.
# 4: Australian Food History: The Hungry Years. 1777 – 1800.
# 5: Australian Food History: Greener Pastures. 1800 to 1850.
# 6: Australian Food History: The Gold Rush Years. 1850 to 1900.
# 7: Australian Food History: Federation and WW1. 1900 to 1920.
# 8: Australian Food History: Nutritionism begins. 1920 to 1950
# 9: Living through Food History: 1950s to 1970s
# 10: Living through Food History: 1980s to 2000s

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Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.

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Notes and References:

1. The middle ages is the time period between The Antiquity and The Modern Period. It spans from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to the end of the 15th century. Early middle ages is 476 – 1066 (dark ages), high middle ages 1066 – 1250 and late middle ages 1250-1509. The year 1066 is significant as the date of the Battle of Hastings, the last time Britain was successfully invaded by a foreign power. Subsequently smaller kingdoms were joined into one Kingdom (England) over which King William I ruled, and marking the  beginning of the high middle ages era. The middle ages ended in 1509, the death of Henry VII. Historians are not all in agreement as to dates of the middle ages, and the splitting into or dates of the three sub-periods. Some historians mark the end of the middles ages as the development of modern printing (1453) or the discovery of the Americas (1492).  

2. Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking- The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Page 127. Harper Collins. 1991. London.

3. Various estimates of population of England and proportion in rural areas are given throughout historical accounts and books, and approximately 90% rural is often stated. In The Black Death (22) Zeigler estimates less than 12% lived in cities and towns at the time of the Black death in the mid 14th century.

4. Elizabeth Brown. Feudalism. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Online version. retrieved 14 Feb 2019. < E Brown, Emeritus Professor of History, University of New York.>
I note that the term feudalism is controversial, may have predated the Norman conquest, and some academics refrain from using the term altogether.

5. Social classes in England considered the ruling elite in the Middle Ages were: Royalty, Nobles (Dukes, Marquess, Earls, Viscounts, Barons); and below them Knights, Baronets, and Landed Gentry. Clergy had a separate hierarchy of Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Abbots and Monks.

6. Manors were the administrative centre of the territorial organization in the feudal system. Land had three classes: (1) Demesne which was land for the Lord and his household; (2) Dependant land that the peasants worked in service to the Lord; and (3) land the peasants were able to work for themselves. Manorial structures and economies were not all uniform nor contained all three types of holdings. castlesandmanorhouses.com

After the Norman conquest land of the English was given to Norman Nobles and Knights and a substantial portion retained by the King. The land was divided between the Lord of the manor’s ‘demesne’ and the remainder of the land in strips plus a house in the village surrounding the manor allotted to peasants who worked his land. (11)

7. (a) Boerner, Lars* and Quint, Daniel#, Medieval Matching Markets (December 10, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1727700 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1727700 Paper drawing on literature from legal and economic historians. * Humboldt University, Berlin; #Stanford University.

7. (b) Arnoux, Mathieux. Medieval markets: economic institutions and social implication.
University of Paris-7. EHESS. Institute University of France.

8. The term ‘vegetable’ was not used in England until the early 15th century. Prior to that edible plants were referred to as ‘herbs’. (9, 11) Vegetables in middle ages include: onion, garlic, parsnips, fennel, parsley, shallot, watercress, endive, lettuce, beetroot, cabbage, leeks, carrots, artichokes, long beans, broad beans, peas, lentils, asparagus, cabbages. Fresh Herbs were used by noble’s for medicinal purposes and in cooked food. (11,12)

9. Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking- The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Harper Collins. 1991. London.

10. C N Trueman “Food and Drink in Medieval Englandhttp://www.historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 5 Mar 2015. Update 14 Jan 2019. Retrieved 14 February, 2019.

11. Lords and Ladies. Middle Ages Food. www.lordsandladies.org Retrieved 14 February, 2019.

12. Alixie Bovey. The Middle Ages. The medieval diet. British Librarywww.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/the-medieval-diet. Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0) Retrieved 14 February 2019. <Alixie Bovey, medievalist British Library. Head of Research Courtauld Institute of Art>

13.Some sources state yeast-leavened bread was not introduced until 16th century (11). McGee states fermentation by chance and then promoted by old dough developed much earlier and by 300 BC yeast making was a specialty in Egypt, although later north of the Mediterranean. The early breads used in middle ages made from rye, barley and oats made course heavy breads; than later breads when wheat was used. He notes a 14th century recipe using ‘Warme Berme’ with Berme being the yeast produced by fermentation of ale. (9, pge 275-6)
In 18th century sodium bicarbonate developed in New York. (crystalhills.com).
The mixture of an acid with an alkali to produce a reaction carbon dioxide gas that aerates for leavening dough mixtures was developed in England in 1835 and commercially produced from about 1850. (9, pge 282).

 14. Pease is a middle English term for peas. Pease pudding was a dish made from dried peas and appears in the nursery rhyme ‘Pease pudding hot”.

15. Meat The term ‘meat’ previously meant solid food in general. In the 14th century it meant flesh of animals and later meat from cattle, pigs and sheep distinct from poultry and fish. (9) Upper classes ate more venison, beef, pork, goat, lamb, rabbit, hare, mutton; game including deer, boar, hares, rabbits; and birds swans, herons, geese, ducks, pheasant, pea-fowl, turkey, crane, crow, stork, thrush, black-birds, quail, cuckoo, and partridge. (9,11) Easter was a feast with much meat consumed. (11)

16. (a) Rebecca Slitt. What’s for dinner? Ultimate history project <Rebecca Slitt. Historian on 12th Century England.>

16. (b) Food and Drink In The Medieval Village www.medievaltime.com Retrieved 14 February 2019

17. Feasts with dining on venison, beef, pork, goat, lamb, rabbit, hare, mutton, game meats, fish and fowl. (9,11) Gluttony Feasts The wealthy ate a larger amount of meat and game, as well as white bread, spices and rich sauces. (16,b) Great feasts were adorned with speculator dishes of jellies, pies fritters and stews; magnificent animal foods,  jellies and custards, and sugar sculptures. (12) Meals were not separated into ‘savoury’ and ‘sweet’ dishes but laid out together. (12) Noblemen had access to more meat, game, fish, spices, sugar and almonds. (11) Lower Classes ate fruit herbs nuts and honey (11, 16,a). Bowls and spoons were the main implements used. (11) Royalty ate from silverware or gold dishes, lower classes from wooden or horn. (11) Liquids, including soup, were drunk from cups. Knives had been long used whereas forks were introduced only from the 14th century. (11) Recipes exist from the middle ages, although most would have been from Noblemens’ households. (12) In certain religious periods and on some days during the week, the eating of meat was banned.

18. Food Processing techniques in the middle ages: Salt was used as a preservative by dry-salting or soaking is salted water (brine). Meat and fish were preserved by pickling in brine or vinegar, gelatin, or smoking; cereal grains, meat and fruit by drying; fruit and nuts were candied in honey or fruit puree. (11) Ham, sausages, and black puddings (made from from pig’s blood) were processed meats in the middle ages. (10) Biscuits were made by baking bread twice which kept well. Developed by the Crusaders.

19. In the 12th-13th century England had sporadic involvement in the Crusades. Biscuits, of bread baked twice, were developed by the crusaders, and found useful on long voyagers as it kept well. The crusaders brought back spices, raisins, dates, figs and sugar from the middle east. (11) Spices included Pepper, Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg, Ginger, Saffron, Cardamom, Coriander, Cumin, Garlic, Turmeric, Mace, Anise, Caraway and Mustard as well as sugar, dates, figs and raisins. (11,12)

20. Growth in towns and cities occurred in the later centuries of the middle ages and by 1500 has been estimated to be approximately 20% of the population compared to 10% at the start of high-middle ages.  (Ref)

21. Kathryn Warner. The Great Famine, 1315-1317. edwardthesecond.blogspot.com retrieved 19 February, 2019.

21 (b). The GREAT FAMINE. In the years prior to the famine, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the population levels had doubled. In terms of grain production, the ratios of each crop yield had been dropping to a 2:1 ratio, that is for each season production would yield sufficient for two to plant, one to eat. Note that modern ratios approximate 30:1. The famine was preceded by several severe winters and rainy cold summers. This meant that the grain could not ripen. There were crop failures. In addition there was no hay for livestock. The price of food began to rise. Wheat rose in price by 320%. Bread became unaffordable, as did salt. Stores of grains became limited to royalty, lords, nobles and the church. It was not possible to preserve meat as it  could not dry in wet weather and salt became too expensive. For the peasants (95% of the population) there were no food reserves. People slaughtered work animals, consumed seeds and grains meant to plant the following crop, which exacerbated shortages. Children were abandoned.  The famine peaked in 1317 although crops did not return to pre-famine levels until 1325 by which time 10-25% of the population had died. (REF)

22. The BLACK DEATH:
Ziegler, Phillip. The Black Death. 1991. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited. Gloucestershire. Digital edition via Internet Archive Library. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
The Black Death (not called that until later centuries) was a plague, a highly contagious and deadly disease, that swept Europe in the 14th century and entered England in 1348. Ziegler describes the difficulty and differences in methodologies used by historians in estimating population prior to and deaths due to the Black Death*. He claims an exact figure is not possible. Nevertheless from accurate records that were kept (by clergy and in some manors) and extrapolation to the rest of the population, he estimates the range to have been a 23-45% overall death rate, with some areas recording rates as high as 56% up to 90%. (Difficulties include but not limited to: deaths not recorded, household sizes not known, various local differences throughout the country, clergy accurate records in some areas were extrapolated to whole country).

22 b. Life expectancy in 1276 was estimated as 35.28 years; between 1301 and 1325 (the great famine) it had dropped to 28.84; and in 1348-1375 (after the plague) it was 17.33. 

23. White, Ian. The Black Death, Economic and Social Change and the Great Rising of 1381 in Hertfordshire. Birkbeck University of London.

24. Hodgett, Gerald (2006). A Social and Economic History of Medieval Europe. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

25. Ploughmans lunch ‘Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede‘ <  > electronic edition. Print Source Rev Walter W Skeat, Ma.A., ed English Text Society, 1867.

26. Symons, Michael. One Continuous Picnic. A Gastronomic History of Australia. Second edition. 2007. Melbourne University Press.

27. Image courtesy <zirconicusso>@freedigitalphotos.net; adapted excluding items from later eras.